Sexual Assault Awareness Month: What We Know About Harmful Masculinity and Sexual Violence

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a time to stand with survivors of all forms of sexual violence, raise awareness of the issue and what drives it, and reflect on what we can all do to prevent it. As the month comes to a close, it’s also time to reflect on what we know from Promundo’s and partners’ decades of research when it comes to understanding what masculinity has to do with sexual violence.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are, unfortunately, ubiquitous in the US: a 2019 study co-sponsored by Promundo shows that nationwide, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men report having experienced some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime. Empowering sexual assault survivors to seek support and justice while holding those who use violence accountable is vital. It’s also important to foster conversations around preventing sexual assault and advocating for evidence-based methods to end violence.

What does our research tell us about the links between harmful masculinity and sexual violence?

Promundo and partners often define ‘harmful masculinity’ as a the narrow set of norms and expectations associated with the “right” way to “be a man.” These have negative consequences not only for an individual’s mental, physical, and psychological well-being, but also for the well-being of those around him and society as a whole. These traits and tendencies include: the expectation to be self-sufficient, to always act tough, to conform to rigid gender roles, and to use aggression and violence – including sexual violence – as a way to assert dominance over others.

1. Harmful masculinity drives men’s perpetration of sexual assault and violence.

According to The Man Box, Promundo’s study of young men ages 18 to 30 in the US, UK, and Mexico, harmful ideas around masculinity are linked to a higher likelihood of perpetrating violence. The study found that men who identify more strongly with stereotypical notions of masculinity – or who are in the “Man Box” – are up to six times more likely to report having perpetrated sexual harassment, and up to seven times more likely to have used physical violence. The associations between harmful masculine norms and violence are so strong, that if we got rid of the Man Box all together, we could reduce sexual violence in the US by at least 69 percent annually.

2. Childhood experiences also link with men’s adherence to harmful masculine norms and their likelihood of using violence, especially sexual violence.

Childhood experiences can be extremely influential in shaping an individual’s likelihood to perpetrate sexual violence against others. A study by the International Center for Research on Women and Promundo found that men who experienced trauma at home during childhood, such as being neglected by parents, witnessing violence between parents, or experiencing physical and sexual violence as a child, are much more likely to perpetrate intimate partner violence and sexual violence in their adult life. This is not to say that these links are automatic, of course; many individuals are able to use adverse childhood experiences as partial reason to resist the use of violence later in life. But the intergenerational transmission of violent behaviors remains a strong and consistent challenge for violence prevention efforts.

3. Sexual assault is not the problem of a few individual men, but rather is part of the social cultures at schools, workplaces, and other institutions.

We should always hold those who use sexual violence accountable in ways that reflect true justice according to the wishes and vision of those most harmed by violent acts. It’s also important to remember that the drivers of sexual harassment are often deeper and more systemic than simply individuals’ pathologies or decisions. Research on college sexual assault reveals that individuals’ decisions are informed by social interactions and by observations of social settings. If college-age individuals find themselves in an educational environment where peers and colleagues hold disrespectful beliefs about women and relationships, and those harmful attitudes are tolerated, this creates an enabling environment for violence. Whether on college campuses or in wider society, the prevalence of sexual violence relates strongly with so-called “rape culture” above and beyond individual decisions. As such, all of us are responsible for social and cultural shifts to reject all forms of violence and discrimination.

4. Sexual violence and harmful masculinity don’t only have social and physical costs, they have economic costs as well.

Harmful masculine norms and sexual violence pose enormous economic costs to society (in addition to, of course, the massive range of unquantifiable traumas, pains, and lost opportunities that disproportionately impact cis women and trans and nonbinary individuals in patriarchal societies). According to a study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, rape alone costs the US more than any other criminal act, at $127 billion annually. A recent costing study done by Promundo, focused on men 18-30 years old, has found that sexual violence attributed to harmful masculine norms cost the US a bare minimum of $631 million a year, a cost incurred by those who survive and those who are harmed by men’s use of violence.

How can we prevent sexual violence and create lasting change?

In order to prevent future violence and sexual violence, listening to women and including their voices at all levels of programming and leadership is crucial. Communities must elevate the voices of women of underrepresented identities and create safe spaces for all sexual assault survivors to be heard and to heal. Institutions must put into place zero-tolerance policies with public support from leadership, and conduct trainings to sensitize staff and improve bystander intervention skills.

We also need to engage and empower youth, targeting boys, in cultivating discussions and critical reflections around gender norms and forming healthy relationships. Whether through school curricula, after-school programs, or community programming, conversations on healthy masculinities should start early in life. An example is Promundo’s Manhood 2.0 group education initiative, in which boys and young men participate in open, direct conversation around shaping masculinities based on respect, care, empathy, consent, and rejection of violence.

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